Towards the end of Parashat Tetzaveh, we read of God’s command to offer a daily sacrifice each morning and afternoon (the “tamid” offering). God emphasizes in His command that this sacrifice is to be offered in the courtyard outside the Mishkan, where He would speak to Moshe (“asher iva’eid lakhem shama le-daber eilekha sham” – 29:42).
Rashi cites two different interpretations from Chazal in explaining this phrase. One view understood that indeed, after the Mishkan’s construction, God spoke to Moshe in the courtyard outside the Mishkan, as the simple reading of this verse seems to suggest. Others, however, explained the verse to mean that God spoke to Moshe from inside the Mishkan. In this verse, God intends to refer to the area outside the Mishkan – the building in which God would speak to Moshe. This second view is supported by a verse earlier, in Parashat Teruma (25:22), which states that God spoke to Moshe from above the aron inside the Mishkan.
Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk, in his Meshekh Chokhma, suggests viewing this debate off the backdrop of a halakhic debate in the Gemara (Megilla 26b-27a) regarding the comparative levels of sanctity of synagogues and houses of study. The practical question under debate there in the Gemara is whether a synagogue may be turned into a beit midrash (house of study), or vice versa. One view regards houses of prayer as more sacred than houses of study, such that it would be permissible to transform a beit midrash into a synagogue, thereby elevating its level of sanctity, but not to turn a synagogue into a beit midrash, as this lowers its sanctity. (The accepted view is that it is permissible to turn a synagogue into a beit midrash, but not to turn a beit midrash into a synagogue – Shulchan Arukh, O.C. 153:1.) The Meshekh Chokhma suggests that the inner chamber of the Mishkan, where the ark – which contained the tablets – stood, symbolizes the beit midrash, the place where Torah is studied and preserved. The outdoor courtyard in front of the Mishkan, where the altar stood, is similar to a synagogue – the site of serving God. And thus the question of whether God convened with Moshe at the site of the aron or at the site of the altar is, essentially, the same question as to whether a beit midrash is more sacred than a synagogue, or vice-versa. If we view a beit midrash as more sacred, then the more suitable location for God’s communion with Moshe was the site of the ark, whereas if a synagogue is more sacred, then it stands to reason that God communicated with Moshe at the site of the altar, in the courtyard of the Mishkan.
More broadly, perhaps, this debate perhaps touches upon the fundamental question of where we encounter the Almighty – in the pristine, sacred domain of the kodesh ha-kodashim (the inner chamber of the Mishkan), or in the more complex setting of the courtyard. The kodesh ha-kodashim was concealed by a curtain, nobody was ever permitted to walk inside and no rituals were performed there (except by the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur). It thus represents the highest, strictest standards of purity and sanctity, complete withdrawal from all worldly activity, and exclusive focus upon, and engagement in, spirituality. The courtyard outside the Mishkan, however, is where the kohanim performed their service and partook of sacrificial food. It represents the realm of human activity, the ideal of conducting our ordinary human affairs in an elevated, sacred manner. Whereas the kodesh ha-kodashim represents withdrawal from mundane activity, the courtyard represents the refinement and elevation of mundane activity.
Accordingly, the two views cited by Rashi perhaps reflect the tension between these two conflicting ideals – the ideal of the aron, and the ideal of the courtyard. The pristine experience of the kodesh ha-kodashim offers the advantage of the absence of distraction and temptation, the ability to focus exclusively and single-mindedly on the sanctity of the Torah without the unholy pressures and lures of the outside world. The experience in the courtyard, however, while exposing one to the risk of distraction and lures, offers the opportunity to extend the sanctity of the Mishkan outward, to apply the message of kedusha to all areas of human life, and to bring it to those outside the Sanctuary. This experience is one of struggle and complexity, and poses risks, but it offers opportunities that are denied in the secluded, pristine domain of the kodesh ha-kodashim.
The two opinions cited by Rashi thus teach that we encounter God through a delicate balance of both experiences – through the intense spiritual experience of the kodesh ha-kodashim, and through the complex experience of the courtyard outside. We are to set aside time for the “kodesh ha-kodashim,” for exclusive, single-minded focus on Torah and spirituality, but also strive to serve God in the “courtyard,” by elevating our mundane affairs and worldly engagement, rather than seeking to withdraw from them.